Search Engine Optimization and the Law: Could Optimizing a Bad Website Land You in Trouble?

What does search engine optimization (SEO) have to do with the law? More than you might expect. Over the past several years, there have been multiple lawsuits connected to SEO. Is that something you should be concerned regarding your own website? 

We all know already that there’s an intimate connection between search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing. That you cannot have SEO without content to support it. But what happens when that content is legally problematic? 

Let’s start with a bit of background information, courtesy of UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh. In 2004, a man sued his employer, claiming they allowed him to be harassed based on his religion. Multiple publications reported on the suit, which mentioned denied allegations of threatening behavior on the man’s part.

In 2016, while looking for a new job, the man discovered that several of the top results for his name on Google were articles referencing the incident. Believing this could potentially interfere with his job hunt, he requested that the publications remove the pieces. One did, the other did not.

Not to be dissuaded, the man contacted a reputation management company, evidently planning to “minimize the appearance of the article in search results for his name.”  He ultimately decided they cost too much and abandoned the idea. 

A short time later, the article began to rise rapidly through the results page for his name, eventually hitting number one on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Several other, similar articles also placed high on the SERP. Convinced that someone was attempting to sabotage him, the man sued the person he believed was responsible for orchestrating this. 

“No organic or natural renewed public interest in the plaintiff, the lawsuit, or the lawsuit articles had occurred,” alleges the suit. “Yet, new websites appeared harvesting content from the Chicago Tribune article. Indeed, search results for the plaintiff's name rapidly changed in an unnatural and dramatic manner to emphasize the Chicago Tribune article and other webpages referencing the lawsuit and embarrassing content about the plaintiff.” 

We’re not going to touch the question of whether or not the articles were truly libelous or harmful to the man’s reputation. Instead, I’m interested in another facet of this story. Namely, if you as an SEO professional successfully rank a page that contains damaging information, are you liable for what happens as a result?

Though it depends on your location, I’d argue that it’s ultimately about intent. If it can be proven that you optimized a page exclusively to cause harm to someone then yes, you could find yourself dealing with some legal trouble. Similarly, if you’re associated with a website that knowingly hosts illegal content, you could be in trouble not for your SEO efforts, but for your affiliation.

That aside, there are a few ways SEO can run you afoul of the law, and they’re mostly related to plagiarism, such as:

  • Stealing someone’s trademarked domain and passing it off as your own. 
  • Spinning someone’s content to fill out your own. 
  • Copying a competitor’s website and replacing their links. 

You get the idea. Black hat stuff. Tactics and techniques you should be avoiding.

At the end of the day, optimizing a bad website probably won’t land you in any sort of trouble. SEO itself is not illegal, nor does it offer guaranteed results. Just keep it clean, and you should be fine.